By Fred Topel | Image property of respective holders
For a documentary based on a book about statistics, Freakonomics is a really faithful adaptation. It’s got the exact same figures and explanations that I remember from the book. With different filmmakers handling each segment, some obviously work better than others, but either way it is the book.
Seth Gordon’s segments really convey the essence of the book. The authors explain each statistical phenomenon and they tell engaging stories. They lay out the difference between cause and correlation. They are so charismatic that there’s no other filmmaker gimmick that matches their inherent showmanship.
The Morgan Spurlock segment opens with a joke. It’s got really heightened recreation segments to illustrate the phenomenon, and animation and pop culture references. He either lucked out or smartly chose the most fun segment about how your name affects your success in life. Otherwise it relates the book’s chapter pretty exactly. Maybe the name Uneek is new. I don’t remember that one but it’s been a long time.
The Alex Gibney segment follows the fun with something utterly stark. There are a lot of interviews conducted in black voids and black and white footage. He handles the case of corruption in Sumo wrestling and his segment is WAY too long. This isn’t an expose on the underbelly of Japanese sports. Once you’ve demonstrated how statistics reveal the cheaters, you’re done.
Eugene Jarecki has the most sensitive segment and I think he blows it. He’s got the one about how legalized abortions lowered the crime rate 20 years later when all the unborn unwanted babies didn’t grow up to be criminals. It’s way too stylized, even more than Spurlock’s. Don’t bury this fascinating information with amateur animation and rough editing. It also feels like this segment is afraid to say what it’s really saying. The narration is horrible, almost baby talking it’s so cautious. Plus, it’s the shortest one. THIS is the segment that should have been explored as thoroughly as the Sumo one.
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady bring it home. They just do a straightforward documentary and it proves to be the best of all the segments. They portray the attempts to bribe high school freshmen to do better in school. It’s the segment that will probably provoke the most debate because it actually has ambiguous possibilities.
The important thing about all this is to think about all the factors when you make your decisions. Don’t pretend the uncomfortable factors aren’t still real. They are. As the authors say, they’re exposing the truth without judgment. They’re not advocating abortion or baby naming or bribery. They’re just saying these things matter, so make whatever choice you want, just don’t make it arbitrary.